FRANK TALK ABOUT WHAT WE DO WITH OUR LIVES

“Like Self Help, Without the Answers”

In Notes on December 19, 2013 at 7:39 pm

By Kate Gace Walton

Kate ProfileNearly three years ago, I started approaching people—friends and strangers, online and offline—to ask about their work. I wanted to know why they do what they do, and how they feel about it. And, as if that wasn’t intrusive enough, I then asked them to send me an essay. Yep, I asked them to sit down and spend hours—hours!—crafting a thoughtful piece for publication.

Did I offer to pay for these essays? No.

Did I dangle the promise of ‘exposure’? No.

Instead, the exchanges* I had with potential Work Stew contributors went something like this:

Why should I write an essay for Work Stew?

You shouldn’t write an essay for Work Stew. I can’t pay you for it, and in the big scheme of things, my following is very small. Getting published by me will not propel you to fame and fortune.

But, um, didn’t you just ask me to write an essay and send it to you?

I did. But do it for you—not for Work Stew. People seem to get something out of the writing process. For most people, the payoff is simply a welcome shot of mental clarity, but for others it’s been more dramatic: Terri Rowe started publishing the stories she writes for children; Meg Kumin launched a photography business. As a potential sponsor once said about Work Stew: “Oh, I get it—it’s like self help, without the answers.”

Wait. Did you say sponsor??? I thought you said you couldn’t pay for my essay!

Settle down please. It’s very time-consuming to ask people, one by one, to write for Work Stew, so for two years now—in an attempt to introduce the site to new contributors—I’ve held an essay contest complete with wonderful judges and actual prize money. I go to sponsors, like my generous friend Steve Karan, for this prize money, but I cover all other costs associated with the site myself.

Okay, getting back to the topic of self help: what’s wrong with regular self help? What’s wrong with giving people answers?

Nothing I guess (if we set aside the burns from walking on hot coals or the tragic deaths from ill-advised excursions to sweat lodges). My main problem with most self help, in which I include a lot of conventional career guidance, is just that it doesn’t seem to work. If it did, why are so many of us repeat customers?

Okay, getting back to the idea of writing something: I’m already on Facebook. I’m on Twitter. I write all day, every day. I express myself relentlessly. Why should I write an essay?

Writing long form is different. The sheer volume of words in an essay forces you to get past the veneer that usually passes for talk about work. The telegrams we often use to tell our work stories—quips like “I’m a reformed lawyer”—no longer suffice. The blank page demands that you dig deeper. If for no other reason than to fill the space, you find yourself revisiting the choices you’ve made in the past and thinking hard about the choices you have yet to make. Also, in addition to the length of an essay, its relative formality—i.e. the need for a beginning, middle, and end—seems to force at least a tiny bit of mental progress. In the end, some conclusion, however slight, must be reached.

Okay, so maybe I’ll write an essay. But why should I send it to you? Why should I consider sharing it with others? What’s wrong with good old-fashioned journaling as a way to sort through the noise in my head?

Journaling is great—to a point. It can be cathartic to express a thought even if it really, really shouldn’t see the light of day. However, journaling also has a downside: it keeps you trapped in the echo chamber of your own mind. If you’re anything like me, you’ve told yourself a fair amount of crap over the years. Knowing that you might share what you’re writing forces you to take a good, hard look at what you’ve said and to ask: “Wait. Is that true?” It may sound counter-intuitive (“How can I speak freely about something as sensitive as work?”), but what I’ve seen is that sharing often encourages real honesty. It facilitates a fresh look. 

If I do this, will I get a mug?

Work Stew MugYes! By day, I’m the CEO of a firm called Steyer Associates. We’re a content agency providing a range of services (writing, editing, curation, production, design, video production, project management, etc.) to clients ranging from Fortune 500 companies to start-up ventures. It’s satisfying work in its own right, and having an income from elsewhere enables me to afford, among other things, small thank you gifts that I send to Work Stew contributors. Hence, the famed Work Stew coffee mug and my habit of shipping dark chocolate and licorice around the world.

Okay, I’ll think about it.

Thank you. And sorry if I freaked you out by asking for an essay out of the blue. If it’s any comfort, I do this to everybody.

***

*Consider this a dramatic re-enactment of a conversation that never happened. In reality, the exchanges I’ve had went nothing like this, mostly because it’s taken me all three years to figure out the answers to these questions. In the interest of historical accuracy, I must report that my actual conversations usually went something like this:

“Why should I write an essay for Work Stew?”

“Because it just seems like a good idea? Pretty please?”

  1. Kate, I read your note expecting a solicitation… and then, in the spirit of writing for intrinsic rewards, of course, there wasn’t one. Nevertheless, do you take donations? In exchange for a mug?

    Jeff Schwartz

    And by the way– I had such a great visit with your parents on Bainbridge Island last summer when I was there for the Global Online Academy. I’m sorry I missed you. Please convey my best wishes to all your family for the holiday season and new year!

  2. Hi, Jeff! Thank you for your kind note. A year or so ago, I *was* selling the mugs in the spirit of, say, an NPR tote bag (to cover the podcast’s bandwidth costs) but I quickly discovered that I’d rather spend my Work Stew hours editing essays and producing interviews vs. fundraising. So, I stopped. But the deal is evergreen: mugs are $20 without an essay, free for those whose writing lands up on the site. Feel free to send me an email: kate@workstew.com. In the meantime, thanks again for your note, happy holidays, and all the best for 2014!

  3. […] chat about the precise angle you’d like to tackle. Other Work Stew contributors have found it helpful to capture their thoughts in writing—and the final decision on whether or not to publish will always rest with […]

  4. […] chat about the precise angle you’d like to tackle. Other Work Stew contributors have found it helpful to capture their thoughts in writing—and the final decision on whether or not to publish will always rest with […]

  5. […] chat about the precise angle you’d like to tackle. Other Work Stew contributors have found it helpful to capture their thoughts in writing—and the final decision on whether to publish will always rest with […]

  6. […] pay contributing essayists. (So far, this hasn’t been especially controversial, because I don’t make any money from Work Stew—and long ago I promised that, if the site happens to yield any sort of monetary payoff down the […]

  7. […] Work Stew is currently accepting submissions: When you ponder your work life, what kinds of things do you think about? Consider writing a piece of your own. Past contributors have found that they get a lot out of the process.  […]

  8. […] the essays are back! With any luck, I will publish twelve new pieces this year—one a month. To submit a draft, please email me at kate@workstew.com. […]

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